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Winter birding round up - where to go and what to see in the Eastern U.P. - January 2020

Extension educator Elliot Nelson dishes on the best places to see winter birds in the Eastern U.P.

A barred owl is seen sitting in a tree.
Keep an eye open for Barred Owls especially in hardwood areas along roadsides and powerlines. Photo: Bill VanderMolen (2018)

Welcome to this edition of the Eastern UP Winter Birding Round Up. I’ve had a chance to get out and bird this winter as well as glean what’s happening in the area from personal conversations, Facebook, eBird, emails and more. Birding is both a personal interest of mine, and a service I provide on behalf of Michigan Sea Grant, and as an Extension educator with Michigan State University. A reminder, most locations mentioned are found on the EUP Winter Birding Map at www.northhuronbirding.com.

Birding tips

As a bit of a reminder how to bird this area. Most birding is done via driving along various routes through habitat targeting specific species. You often drive slowly through back roads, and pull over to get out and scan regularly. If you never get out to scan open fields or forests, and stay in your car the whole time, you are likely to miss many individual birds. Some forested areas like Hulbert Bog and Dunbar Park are better to view by walking around outside your car, but most open areas are best viewed from the car with only brief stops to get out and scan an area.

Please remember to be respectful of both the birds, private property, and the law. Follow traffic laws and park in areas where you do not block traffic. If you are birding near private property make sure to be respectful and friendly, and if a local resident questions what you are up to, use the opportunity to explain the joys of the hobby of birding. When encountering birds, keep a respectful distance. Especially with owls and other raptors keep a distance from them, or bird from your car which often acts as a blind. If a bird is looking at you, with wide eyes or changes posture, you are most likely too close. Slowly back away in those cases.

Here’s an overview of what you might expect to see.

Owls and other raptors

The main species present once again is the majestic Snowy Owl. Dozens of individuals have been seen across the flatlands of Rudyard, Pickford and Sault Township. Some particular areas to keep an eye out include Pickford on Pennington Road and on Hancock Road, Rudyard on Centerline Road, and south of Sault Ste. Marie on Riverside Drive between 10 and 8 mile road.

  • Barred Owls’s have been popping up in several places as well, a common occurrence up here in the winter where these normally nocturnal birds will sometime hunt during the daytime. Keep an eye open especially in hardwood areas along roadsides and powerlines.
  • Unfortunately, Northern Hawk Owls have been absent this year. However, there has been a notable downtick in the number of birders visiting the area this winter, and our fellow birders in Sault Ste Marie, ON, and the Algoma district of Ontario Canada have had no less than 12 individual hawk owls this winter. Given the large concentration just across the border, it is more than likely a hawk owl is hanging out somewhere in Chippewa county.
  • In addition, there have been no Boreal Owl sightings and only one Great Gray Owl seen near Raber Bay in early December. However, again both of these species have been seen just across the St Mary’s river this year. So who knows if one could be hiding somewhere in our area.
  • A Gyrfalcon has been present for the last couple of weeks seen flirting with the US/Canada boarder along the St Mary River. The bird has been seen underneath the international bridge and a few locations along the Sault Ste Marie, ON, mainland. These birds stake out massively large territories in the winter, and so expect this bird to be hard to find. Look along the Cloverland Power Plant, the Sugar Island Ferry area, and around the International Bridge.
  • Rough-legged Hawks of a variety of color morphs are present in moderate numbers this year. I have seen both a dark and an intermediate/light morph individual consistently on Taylor Road just west of M129 and south of Pickford. Other birds have been seen on 12 Mile Road east of M129, and on M28 between M129 and I75.
  • Bald Eagles are probably the most numerous raptor in the area, and in general one of the most numerous birds here this winter. Well over 25 birds at a time can be seen at the Dafter Landfill. And a large nest is active again just northwest of Pickford.

Winter finches and waxwings 

For those of you familiar with Ron Pittaway’s finch forecast (http://www.jeaniron.ca/2019/wff19.htm) he predicted light to little movement for most finch species and other boreal wanderers this year. However, as Skye Hass and others noted on the local UP Birding list serv, that report is written for farther east and south of here and does not always reflect what is going on in the UP. In particular Skye notes “I have observed over the years that there are many winters that aren’t to be irruption years yet finch/waxwing numbers build up as the winter goes along. I suspect they are simply easting their way south.” This would prove to be true over the month of January for at least some species.

  • American Goldfinch has been the primary species of finch here this winter in large flocks almost everywhere.
  • Purple Finch showed up in mid January in flocks of 2-12 and continue with these modest sized numbers at most feeder locations and in spruce dominated habitats.
  • Pine Siskin have also trickled in and are present in modest numbers at feeder locations and in spruce bogs.
  • White-winged Crossbill is probably the most exciting winter finch in decent numbers up here this year. Multiple reports have come in from Hulbert Bog and other scattered reports from Kallio Road in Kinross, 12 Mile Road between I75 and Riverside Drive, and near Tahquamenon Falls at both the Upper and Lower falls.
  • Red Crossbills have also been seen at Hulbert Bog, Tahquamenon Falls and in the village of Strongs along with their usual year-round habitat in Raco along M28, Ranger Road and Dick Road.
  • Common Redpoll have been nearly absent with just a few reports trickling in.
  • Pine Grosbeak and Evening Grosbeaks have also been noticeably absent and I have not heard of any reports thus far this winter.
  • Cedar Waxwings made a mid-winter push into the region in early January and sizable flocks have been seen in several locations.
  • To date no Bohemian Waxwings have been seen. Both Bohemians and Pine Grosbeaks could make a late push though in the coming weeks.

Grouse

  • Sharp-tailed Grouse have been present in several locations throughout the winter. Look for these birds sitting in birch and poplar trees eating buds, or on the ground in the early morning hours where they are now forming leks, which are competitive breeding display locations. Birds have been on 9 mile and 8 mile roads east of M129, outside of Rudyard near the intersection of Dryburg and Teets Road, and in Pickford Along 22 Mile Road east of M129 and on Taylor Road west of M129. Also some have been seen at the Dafter Post Office, and on Kinross Road south of 10 mile road. 
  • Ruffed Grouse are frequently flushed in young early succession forests throughout the area, and at the Dunbar feeders you can often find one in the small patch of pine between the feeders and the boat launch.
  • Spruce Grouse reports have come in along M123 west of Paradise. Search the plowed roads west of Paradise as well as north of Paradise.

Gulls

The Dafter Landfill is open for gull viewing from 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m., Mon-Fri. You must check in at the office upon arrival. Gull numbers there have been strong this year, possibly in part due to the mild temperatures.

  • Glaucous Gull have been seen for most with upwards of 10 individual birds present.
  • Iceland Gulls have also been reported in smaller number.
  • A single Great Black-backed Gull has also been present.

Please note, if you are reporting birds via eBird, do not assume there are Ring-billed Gulls present. Late Dec – early March these birds are virtually absent from northern Michigan, and a sighting of one in January or February is rare. They won’t flag on eBird, but do not add them to your checklist unless you are certain you have properly identified an individual.

Waterfowl

The extremely mild temperatures throughout December and January has led to a lot of water still being open in the St Marys River and the Great Lakes. There has been a bit less of a concentration of birds in the St Marys River as a result of this. However, a Harlequin Duck has been spending a lot of time in the rapids just east of the international bridge. The US/Canada border runs down the middle of the rapids, so the bird is often seen in both US and Canada waters. However, most sighting have come from individuals birding on Whitefish Island on the Canadian side, the main location to view the rapids from. This bird sometimes also moves further down the river so viewing could be possible from some other locations. The power canal in Sault Ste. Marie, MI, along with a small amount of water near the Coverland power plant and the Sugar Island ferry has open water. A few Common Goldeneyes and Common Mergansers along with small flock of mallards are around.

Other notables

  • Northern Shrike have been present in average numbers this winter, seen in many locations with young aspen or woody shrubsMunuscong Potholes in Pickford is one of the most reliable places.
  • Snow Bunting have been present on M48 near the I-75 bridge in Rudyard (Rudyard Loop)
  • I have not heard any reports of Canada Jay (Gray Jay) at Hulbert Bog this year. Try checking the Soo Junction Road (Luce County) just west of there if you strike out.

If you are planning a trip to the eastern U.P. and need any extra advice on lodging, food, or birding just give me a shout out via email at elliotne@msu.edu.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 34 university-based programs.

This article was prepared by MSU Extension Educator Elliot Nelson under award NA14OAR4170070 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce through the Regents of the University of Michigan. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Commerce, or the Regents of the University of Michigan.

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